The Free-Time Paradox in America
The rich were meant to have the most leisure time. The working poor were meant to have the least. The opposite is happening. Why?
"Every time I see it, that number blows my mind.”
Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, was delivering a speech at the Booth School of Business this June about the rise in leisure among young men who didn’t go to college. He told students that one “staggering” statistic stood above the rest. "In 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men [those without a college degree] aged 21 to 30 had not worked at all during the prior twelve months,” he said.
"Think about that for a second,” he went on. Twentysomething male high-school grads used to be the most dependable working cohort in America. Today one in five are now essentially idle. The employment rate of this group has fallen 10 percentage points just this century, and it has triggered a cultural, economic, and social decline. "These younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives,” he said.
So, what are are these young, non-working men doing with their time? Three quarters of their additional leisure time is spent with video games, Hurst’s research has shown. And these young men are happy—or, at least, they self-report higher satisfaction than this age group used to, even when its employment rate was 10 percentage points higher.
It is a relief to know that one can be poor, young, and unemployed, and yet fairly content with life; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent society is that it can make even poverty bearable. But the long-term prospects of these men may be even bleaker than their present. As Hurst and others have emphasized, these young men have disconnected from both the labor market and the dating pool. They are on track to grow up without spouses, families, or a work history. They may grow up to be rudderless middle-aged men, hovering around the poverty line, trapped in the narcotic undertow of cheap entertainment while the labor market fails to present them with adequate working opportunities.
But when I tweeted Hurst’s speech this week, many people had a surprising and different take: That it was sad to think that a life of leisure should be so scary in the first place. After all, this was the future today’s workers were promised—a paradise of downtime for rich and poor, alike.
In the classic 1930 essay “Economic Possibility of Our Grandchildren,” the economist John Maynard Keynes forecast a future governed by a different set of expectations. The 21st century’s work week would last just 15 hours, he said, and the chief social challenge of the future would be the difficulty of managing leisure and abundance.
“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem,” Keynes wrote, “how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."
The same idea was echoed in a 1957 book review for The New York Times, in which the writer Erik Barnouw predicted that, as work became easier and more machine-based, people would look to leisure to give their lives meaning.
The increasingly automatic nature of many jobs, coupled with the shortening work week, seem to be creating parallel tensions, which lead an increasing number of workers to look not to work but to leisure for satisfaction, meaning, expression … Today's leisure occupations are no longer regarded merely as time fillers; the must, in the opinion of both social worker and psychiatrist, also perform to some extent as emotional buffers.
But 60 years later, it seems more true to say that it is not leisure that defines the lives of so many rich Americans. It is work.
Elite men in the U.S. are the world’s chief workaholics. They work longer hours than poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in other advanced countries. In the last generation, they have reduced their leisure time by more than any other demographic. As the economist Robert Frank wrote, “building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”
Here is the conundrum: Writers and economists from half a century ago and longer anticipated that the future would buy more leisure time for wealthy workers in America. Instead, it just bought them more work. Meanwhile, overall leisure has increased, but it’s the less-skilled poor who are soaking up all the free time, even though they would have the most to gain from working. Why?
Here are three theories.
1. The availability of attractive work for poor men (especially black men) is falling, as the availability of cheap entertainment is rising.
The most impressive technological developments since 1970 have been “channeled into a narrow sphere of human activity having to do with entertainment, communications, and the collection and processing of information,” the economist Robert Gordon wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. As with any industry visited by the productivity gods, entertainment and its sub-kingdoms of music, TV, movies, games, and text (including news, books, and articles) have become cheap and plentiful.
Meanwhile, the labor force has erected several barriers for young non-college men, both overt—like the Great Recession and the decades-long demise of manufacturing jobs—and insidious. As the sociologist William Julius Wilson and the economist Larry Katz have both told me, the labor market’s fastest growing jobs are not historically masculine or particularly brawny. Rather they prize softer skills, as in retail, education, or patient-intensive health care, like nursing. In the 20th century, these jobs were filled by women, and they are still seen as feminine by many men who would simply rather not do them. Black men also face resistance among retail employers, who assume that potential customers will regard them as threatening.
And so, at the very moment that the labor market obliterated manufacturing jobs and shifted toward more soft-skill service jobs, diversion became a vastly discounted experience that could provide a moment’s joy at home. As a result, entertainment has become an inferior good, where the young and poor work less and play more.
2. Social forces cultivate a conspicuous industriousness (even workaholism) among affluent college graduates.
The first theory doesn’t do anything to explain why rich American men work so much harder than they used to, even though they are richer. That’s odd, since the point of earning money is ostensibly to afford things that make you happy, like free time.
But perhaps that’s just it: Rich, ambitious Americans are already spending more time on what makes them fulfilled, but that thing turned out to be work. Work, in this construction, is a compound noun, composed of the job itself, the psychic benefits of accumulating money, the pursuit of status, and the ability to afford the many expensive enrichments of an upper-class lifestyle.
In a widely shared essay in the Wall Street Journal last week, Hilary Potkewitz hailed 4 a.m. as "the most productive hour." She quoted entrepreneurs, lawyers, career coaches, and cofounders praising the spiritual sanctity of the pre-dawn hours. As one psychiatrist told her, "when you have peace and quiet and you’re not concerned with people trying to get your attention, you’re dramatically more effective."
Keynes envisioned a life with a little less work and a little more leisure, not a social competition to see who could maximize their pre-dawn productivity. But a 2016 essay about why Americans should sleep less to be more productive appeals specifically to a readership that considers downtime a worthy sacrifice upon the altar of productivity.
While some of the hardest-working rich Americans certainly love their jobs, it’s also likely that America’s secular religion of industriousness is a kind of pluralistic ignorance. That is, rich people work long hours because they are matching the behavior of similarly rich and ambitious people—e.g.: “he went to Bowdoin and Duke Law just like me, so if he stays in the office for 13 hours on Wednesday, I should too”—even though many participants in this pageant of workaholism would secretly prefer to work less and sleep at least until the sun is up.
3. Leisure is getting “leaky.”
Here is a third theory that applies equally to all income brackets: Thanks to smartphones and computers, leisure activity is leaking into work, and work, too, is leaking into leisure.
The radio set used to be a living room fixture. In order to listen to the radio, it was necessary to be at home. Then the car radio liberated the radio from the living room, and the television set replaced its corner of the living room. Then the smartphone liberated video from the television screen and put it on a mobile device that fit in people’s pockets.
Now somebody can listen to music, watch video, and read—while checking on social media feeds that can act as the cumulative equivalent of newspapers, magazines, and phone calls with friends—on their phone, while at work. Meanwhile, these same mobile instruments of leisure are also instruments of professional connectivity: When a boss knows that each of her workers have smartphones, she knows that they can all read her email on a Saturday morning (sent, naturally, at 4:01 a.m.).
My job fits snugly into this category. Writing is a leaky affair, where the boundaries between work and leisure are always porous. When I open Twitter, or watch the news on a Sunday morning, am I panning for golden nuggets of insight, taking a mental-health break, or something in between? It’s difficult to say; sometimes, I don’t even know. A novel that I read can become an article’s lede. A history book on my desk can inspire a column. Because the scope of non-fiction journalism is boundless, every moment of my downtime could theoretically surface an idea or stray comment that becomes a story. As a result, my weekdays feel more like weekends (and my weekends feel more like weekdays) than a 20th-century reporter’s.
Keynes got a lot wrong in 1930. He did not envision the rich working more, he did not foresee so many young men in poverty giving up on work, and he could not see the allure of cheap and personalized entertainment. But he accurately forecast the difficulty of a wealthy class transitioning to a more leisurely lifestyle. "The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance,” Keynes wrote. “But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”